Dark Star Orhcester

As Grateful Dead plans farewell, tribute band keeps truckin’

By MARK HAYWARD
Union Leader Staff
June 03. 2015 2:26PM
Dark Star Orchestra keyboardist Rob Barraco (far right) says recreating a Grateful Dead concert experience means a heavy dose of improvisation. 
If you go...
WHO: Dark Star Orchestra

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

WHERE: Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, 169 Ocean Blvd., Hampton

TICKETS: $28 to $33

INFO: 929-4100

If you’re most tribute bands, you work on perfecting the bend of every guitar string, every singer’s squeal, so that when a fan closes his eyes, he thinks he’s hearing a Sammy Hagar guitar riff or the vocals of Paul McCartney up on stage.

But what does a musician do if the original band embodied improvisation? If one night’s song was fast-tempoed and over in five minutes, while a week later the same song launched the band into an cosmic jam session that violated all notions of three-chord rock ‘n’ roll?

In other words, how does a tribute band recreate a Grateful Dead concert?

In short, it doesn’t, said Rob Barraco, the veteran keyboard player for Dark Star Orchestra, a long-running tribute band of the iconic Dead. Dark Star returns to the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom for shows Friday and Saturday nights.

The band brags that it has played more Grateful Dead concerts than the Dead itself. And each night, it follows the set list of a different Grateful Dead show.“But when it comes to the actual playing, it’s all improvised,” Barraco said. “It’s jazzy. You have to have big ears, listen to your band mates, have a conversation. You can never recreate an entire Grateful Dead show note for note.”

The two-night gig in Hampton will take place roughly a month before the four surviving members of the Grateful Dead — Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir — play a three-date reunion show in Chicago. The 50th anniversary concerts, billed as a farewell performance, will take place at Chicago’s Soldier Field, a nod to the fact that it was there, 20 years ago, that the Dead — including longtime group leader, the late Jerry Garcia — last played together.

“For the fans, it’s a wonderful gesture on their part,” Barraco said. Tickets for the Chicago show are being offered on the secondary market for prices that exceed $100,000 for choice seats, with cheap seats about $1,300, according to Billboard.com.

In addition, Fathom Events, Peter Shapiro and Madison House recently announced that “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead” will be broadcast live during Fourth of July weekend in select cinemas nationwide, including July 4 screenings at Cinemagic (Zyacorp) locations in Hooksett and Merrimack. Trey Anastasio (Phish and the Trey Anastasio band), Jeff Chimenti (Ratdog, The Dead and Furthur), and Grammy winner Bruce Hornsby are slated to join the lineup.

And when the final show ends on July 5?

“We think after ‘Fare Thee Well,’ more people are going to be interested in our shows,” Barraco said.

Barraco, who is 59, said he was “indoctrinized” into the Grateful Dead at the age of 14. Yet, he was also drawn to jazz, and in the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was keyboardist for the hit TV show “The Cosby Show” and its spinoff “It’s A Different World.”

He toured with rhythm and blues sensation Freddie Jackson in late 1980s, and then joined the Zen Tricksters. Their second album caught the ear of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, and Barraco started playing with Lesh and his bands, including The Q (short for The Phil Lesh Quintet). Barraco remains a member of Phil Lesh and Friends.

In 2005, Barraco joined Dark Star Orchestra, after the death of its original keyboard player, Scott Larned.

This is the 17th year that Dark Star Orchestra has been on tour. Every living member of the Grateful Dead has played with the band. Besides the set list, Dark Star tries to match the instruments played by the original members, the staging and even positions on stage.

Barraco said Grateful Dead shows in the late 1960s are hard to recreate because they were not full shows, and Dark Star isn’t willing to learn the Grateful Dead material of the 1990s. But there are plenty of shows from the ‘70s and ‘80s to choose from, he said.

So, what shows will they play in Hampton?

“We never release that information,” he said. “It’s part of the mystique of it all.”


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